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An unceremonious end to United States' longest war

Last US flight from Afghanistan leaves behind a host of unfulfilled promises and anxious questions about the future
A night vision scope image  shows Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the  US Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, boarding a C-17 cargo plane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday. He was the last American service member to depart Afghanistan.
A night vision scope image shows Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, boarding a C-17 cargo plane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday. He was the last American service member to depart Afghanistan.
(US Central Command/AP/PTI)

Thomas Gibbons-Neff   |   Washington   |   Published 01.09.21, 01:01 AM

The end of the US’s longest war was unceremonious — trash blowing across the single airstrip of Kabul’s international airport, Afghans lingering outside the gates, still hoping in vain for evacuation, Taliban firing victoriously into the night sky.

In its final days, it was two US Marines shaking hands with Taliban fighters in the dim glow of the domestic terminal.


It was lines of starved and dehydrated evacuees boarding grey planes that took them to uncertain futures. It was the Taliban’s leadership dictating their terms, as a generation of Afghans pondered the end of 20 years of some kind of expanded hope.

It was highway overpasses and park benches stretched across the US, named in honour of the war’s dead.

The end, at least for the Americans and their western allies, came on a Monday after the thousands of US troops defending Hamid Karzai International Airport flew out in waves, one lumbering transport plane after another until none were left, in the final hours of the lost war.

Unlike the Soviets defeated before them, the Americans’ legacy was not a landscape littered with the destroyed hulks of armoured vehicles. Instead, they left all the arms and equipment needed to supply the Taliban, the victors, for years to come, the product of two decades and $83 billion training and equipping an Afghan military and police forces that collapsed in the face of poor leadership and dwindling US support.

Afghanistan has once more completed a cycle that has repeatedly defined the past 40 years of violence and upheaval: For the fifth time since the Soviet invasion in 1979, one order has collapsed and another has risen. What has followed each of those times has been a descent into vengeance, score-settling and, eventually, another cycle of disorder and war.

It is up to the Taliban, now, to decide whether they will perpetuate the cycle of vengeance, as they did upon seizing power from a group of feuding warlords in 1996, or will truly embrace the new path that their leaders have promised in recent days: one of acceptance and reconciliation.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Osama bin Laden and al Qaida executed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, and President George W. Bush announced that the US would invade Afghanistan as the first act in a global war against terrorism. Now, the US is contending with how to define its relationship with the same Islamist rulers it toppled in 2001 — again a question of vengeance or acceptance — and how to try to head off the resurgence of any international terrorist threat rising from Afghanistan.

Now, there are smaller prospects of airstrikes in the Afghan countryside that leave the unnamed and faceless dead as data points in a coloured bar graph of a barely read UN report. No roadside bombs buried in haste, in the dead of night, that might strike a government vehicle or a minibus packed with families.

Instead, there is a widespread anxiety about what the true shape of Taliban rule will be with the Americans truly gone. And there is fear that the chaotic rush of the government’s collapse during the Taliban advance could leave an unfixable economy, ruin and hunger.

The US’s conflict in Afghanistan was a long war with a quick end, or so it seemed. But the withdrawal’s fate was set more than 18 months ago, when the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from the country by May 1, 2021.

In exchange, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking Americans, end mass-casualty attacks on Afghans in cities, and prevent al Qaida and other terrorist groups from finding refuge in the country.

The Taliban’s leverage, earned after years of fighting the world’s most advanced military, multiplied as they captured more remote outposts and checkpoints, then rural villages and districts, then the roads in between them.

By the beginning of this year, the Taliban had positioned themselves near several key cities, as the newly inaugurated Biden administration weighed whether to honour the agreement made under President Donald J. Trump to depart.

By the time President Biden and Nato announced in April the withdrawal of US and coalition forces by September 11, the Taliban were already taking district after district. The Afghan security forces were surrendering or being cut down in droves. Soon, provincial capitals too were under siege, despite American air power and an Afghan military that Biden and other senior officials said was nearly 300,000 strong. But in the final days, the Afghan security forces totalled around just one-sixth of that, according to US officials.

Afghan troops fled more than fought, but those who were killed with their chests facing their enemy died for a cause that not even their leaders seemed to believe in.

Even before Biden’s announcement and Trump’s deal with the Taliban, the US had been in stages of withdrawal since December 2009, when President Barack Obama announced both a surge of tens of thousands of troops and their departure by 2014.

Since then, Afghans and America’s allies have been in varying stages of alarm and second-guessing, clambering to secure their future and business interests. This uncertainty reinforced the endemic corruption that the west decried, but continued to feed it with billions of dollars in the hope it might somehow change.

Now, at the end, the Afghan politicians and entrepreneurs and elite who fed off the war’s coffers have fled. The final US planes departed, leaving behind at least 100,000 Afghans eligible for resettlement in the US for their work with the Americans.

The evacuation, which began in July as an orderly and modest relocation of a few thousand Afghans, devolved into an apocalyptic exodus as Kabul collapsed on August 15. Hundreds, then thousands, amassed at the gates; people abandoned their cars; and US forces watched on infrared cameras as people overran their defences.

The Americans and the Taliban then worked to clear the airport and establish a perimeter after frantic Afghans fell from the underbelly of planes and the thud-thud-thud of helicopters evacuated the US embassy.

New York Times News Service

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